A major Serb offensive which began in late July has made major gains against the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) during August. The KLA stronghold of Junik, in the south west of the country, near the border with Albania, fell on August 16, after nearly three weeks under siege. Serb tanks, helicopter gunships and jet aircraft were used in the attack, against the lightly-armed KLA militamen.
Despite the fall of this major centre, however, the KLA was continuing to defend nearby villages as Crescent International went to press, disproving reports that Serbian forces had secured most of the country and the fighting was ending.
The Serbian operations to re-assert its rule over Kosova had begun on July 27, when Serb forces moved west out of their bases near Kosova’s capital Pristina and east from Pec, to re-take the key strategic highway linking the two towns. Simultaneous operations were launched to retake highways south of Prizren and Junik. The Serb offensive followed weeks of preparatory work, and was apparently intended to re-establish military control over roads and key towns, restricting the KLA to the countryside where they could be contained more easily. The KLA stronghold of Likovac was occupied on August 8.
The military operations are being accompained by a ‘burnt earth’ strategy, designed to deprive the KLA of local support. Entire villages are being burnt down after being ocupied. Reports are emerging of atrocities against civilians, and over 250,000 are now thought to have left their homes.
About 50,000 of these have left Kosova and crossed into neighbouring Albania or Macedonia. The rest are displaced within the country. Many of these refugees are living in the open in fields or on mountains, where conditions are harsh even in summer. There are growing fears for their well-being should the present circumstances continue until the cold weather sets in in autumn.
As usual, Serb military operations have been accompanied on the one hand by strident denials that any operations were even taking place, and on the other by reasonable-sounding offers to reach a negotiated settlement. In July, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic conditionally agreed to western demands that he should restore Kosovar autonomy, as established in Yugoslavia’s 1974 constitution and abolished in 1989. His condition, however, is that the KLA should disarm and the Kosovars should end their demand for total independence.
This is exactly what Kosovar president Ibrahim Rugova was willing to accept through eight years of passive resistance following the Serb suspension of autonomous status in 1989, but the Serbs refused to countenance. Now that Rugova and his pacifist approach have lost the political initiative inside Kosova to the military approach favoured by the KLA, the Serbs and the west are suddenly more prepared to deal with him as the lesser of two evils.
However, they also know that dealing with Rugova alone is no longer useful; any deal must also include the leadership and men of the KLA. This is problematic, as the question of who really leads and represents the KLA - which remains more spontaneous self-defence groups consisting of local people than an organized force - is unclear.
Adam Demaci, a prominent Kosovar politician who has the credibility of having been imprisoned for 28 years under communist rule, and has been a critic of Rugova’s approach since 1989, recently announced that he had agreed to lead the KLA’s political wing. But it is not clear whether he has a mandate to do so from a significant number of KLA commanders.
Despite this continuing confusion as to who really represents the KLA, one thing all KLA people appear unanimous on is that they are no longer willing to settle for less than total independence from Serbia. Some go so far as to advocate the establishment of a greater Albanian State including Albania, Kosova and Albanian-populated areas of Macedonia.
This, of course, is the west’s greatest fear, and explains why they have done nothing meaningful to prevent Serbia’s military action, despite vocally condemning it. NATO military exercises were held in Albania, Macedonia and other neighbouring countries in mid-August, ostensibly as a show of force to deter the Serbs. More exercises are planned for mid-September.
But after the utter ineffectiveness of NATO’s show of aerial strength in June, when aircraft from 11 air forces conducted exercises in Albanian and Macedonian air space near the Kosovar borders, even NATO, UN and EU officials are playing down the significance of these new exercises. Certainly the Serbs appear to know they have nothing to fear from the west.
As in Bosnia, the west is clearly hoping that the KLA will be defeated, Serbian rule will be re-asserted, and this political situation will leave the Kosovars no option but to accept Milosevic’s terms. But the situation in Kosova has changed a great deal in recent months. Rugova’s pacifist approach has been discredited and it is not guaranteed that he will retain sufficient credibility to deal with Serbia on the Kosovars’ behalf even if the KLA is defeated. Much depends of the military fortunes of the KLA over the next few months.
The KLA made the strategic error in spring of coming into the open, and trying to fight the Serbian army in conventional terms. This was never likely to succeed. It may be that they were gambling on western intervention. This also was a futile hope. However, they remain strong in more remote parts of the country, and in the countryside.
Despite their recent successes, the Serbs still control only the towns and major roads. The local population is also solidly behind the KLA and anti-Serb. Should the KLA convert to a guerrilla warfare strategy, as successfully used against occupying forces by oppressed people the world over, Kosova could settle into a long and painful low-intensity war, with little prospect of resolution.
Muslimedia: September 1-15, 1998